Leylah Annie Fernandez’s mother, Irene Exevea, cheered in the stands after Annie upset Elina Svitolina to advance to the semi-finals of the US Open. Fernandez achieved her victory a day after her 19th birthday. Leylah hasn’t fluked her way to the semi-finals: She delivered stirring comebacks to defeat Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber and book her date with Elina Svitolina.
Annie revealed after the match that two bits of advice from her father inspired her historic victory. “Today is your first quarterfinal. Don’t make it your last,” Jorge Fernandez told his daughter over the phone. “Fight for your dream.”
Jorge Fernandez became Leylah’s tennis coach after she was axed from a provincial development program
Leylah Annie Fernandez was born on 6th September 2002 in Montreal, Canada, to Jorge Fernandez and Irene Exevea. Jorge is Ecuadorian, and Irene is Filipino-Canadain. They’ve raised three daughters: Jodeci, Leylah, and Bianca.
Jorge was a professional footballer in Ecuador who signed his first professional contract aged 13. Therefore, he supported Leylah’s passion for tennis when she displayed it at age five. She’d participated and succeeded in football and track and field, but tennis took priority.
“It’s the beauty of it,” Leylah talked to CBC about her attraction to tennis. “Every time I would watch tennis on TV, it was so beautiful,” Annie said. At age 7, Leylah enrolled in a provincial development program that partnered with the national program.
However, the program axed Leylah: She was too slow, had flawed technique, and failed to improve her serve, they said. Fortunately, the disappointment didn’t kill Annie’s enthusiasm for tennis. Jorge told CBC:
“She was crying and I’m looking at this little girl, ‘Honey, is this really important for you?’ She said yeah and that she wanted to play. I said, ‘If you want, I’ll coach you.”
Jorge had gained his limited knowledge about tennis watching Leylah train under development coaches. He’d identified the coaching techniques that benefited Leylah.
He also learned that perhaps the most outstanding female players of all time, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf, were coached by their fathers. Fernandez knew that it would be challenging, but he relished trying to make Leylah mentally unbreakable. Jorge talked to CBC about his approach:
“In the land of the blind the one-eyed-man is king. I had one eye, and I said, OK, since my kids and wife don’t know better, I’m not going to get criticized much. I decided we’re going to focus a lot on fitness, mental toughness, and speed. A lot of precision tennis, and every now and again, a knockout punch.”
Other coaches questioned Jorge’s techniques, but he stuck by them
Jorge adopted a reward and punishment coaching technique that baffled other coaches: Leylah would receive a reward for hitting a goal and face punishment for failure. Fernandez rarely dallied on Annie’s successes as he consistently set higher targets for his daughter.
“You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line,” Jorge said. “You have to be there until the red zone becomes a normal zone. You have a mental fortitude and what you think you couldn’t do, you now do regularly.”
The frowns from other coaches didn’t deter Jorge. Leylah descended to tears during some sessions, and due to his experience as a young footballer, he knew when she needed a supportive arm around the shoulder. Leylah told CBC that she understood her father’s techniques:
“He just wants me to improve, keep correcting, keep competing. He said that’s going to happen a lot, that he’s going to put me in uncomfortable positions during practice and it’s up to me to fight through it and find solutions.”
Jorge wanted to make sure that Leylah would never cower over the size of her opponent. Due to her small size, most of her opponents would be taller than her. Therefore, Jorge purposed to instill in Leylah that the opponent’s size didn’t matter.
He went as far as pitting Leylah against one of his six-foot-four friends. Jorge’s training methods taught Leylah to focus on the ball rather than the opponent. She talked to Tennis Majors about the value of her father’s intense training:
“I am very hardworking. There is no secret to playing tennis, you need to work hard every day. I am glad my parents have taught me the value of working hard from a very young age; that it does not matter what I did yesterday, because today is a new day and a new opportunity to do better.”
Jorge allows Leylah to make her decisions and is slowly detaching himself from her
Jorge was and still is Leylah’s coach, but he leaves the crucial decision-making to her. If she wanted to quit tennis, Jorge would have supported her decision. “Tennis is not the only thing in life that’s going to make you happy but, for me, I just kept improving, kept my head down and kept working,” she said.
Fernandez built Leylah’s strength and mental fortitude but acknowledged that there were training aspects beyond his expertise. To mold Annie into a complete tennis champion, Jorge hired professional tennis coaches. Coach Romain Deridder talked to CBC about his collaboration with Jorge:
“Jorge and I have a really good relationship on and off the court. I think we complement each other well. Obviously, he has been on court with her his whole life so when we started I wanted to learn from him as much as possible and I still do, so I can fit into the team and understand what I can bring and how to approach Leylah.”
Following Leylah’s remarkable rise to pro, Jorge has become more of an advisor than a coach. Leylah told CBC that Jorge offers advice and gives her space to make independent choices:
“I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent so he teaches me all this stuff but leaves the decisions to me to open up, be a strong, independent woman and live with my decisions, whether it’s a bad one and dealing with the consequences.”
Jorge remains as Leylah’s coach, but he’s been detaching himself from her professionally to allow tennis coaches to work their magic. He recognizes that Leylah’s game has massive potential for improvement, and he might not be the best person to guide her through her development. Leylah said:
“He sees weakness as an opportunity to improve and become your greatest weapon. He will always admit his faults, he will always say, ‘I’m not good at this but I can bring someone to mentor you and teach you at the same time so when the time comes and we need to go to a different path… He will still know what to tell me, what to teach me, and we’ll keep working together.”
Leylah’s mother and sister provide the perfect tonic to Jorge’s abrasive style
Irene and Bianca avail themselves for Leylah whenever she takes a break from tennis. Bianca is also an upcoming tennis player under Jorge’s tutelage.
The pair recently moved into separate rooms, but Leylah regularly hangs in Bianca’s room. The pair’s older sister Jodeci lives in Vermont and avoids the limelight. On International Women’s day in 2021, Leylah dedicated the following message to her mother and sisters:
“I had to take a minute to celebrate the three women who have made the biggest impact on my life, my incredible sisters @biancajolietennis & Jodeci, and my amazing mami! My traveling schedule doesn’t always make it easy for us to be together but they are always in my [heart] no matter where I am! I love you girls!!”
Leylah also has a lot of fun with Jorge outside of tennis. The pair have movie nights and occasionally get burgers together. She talked to CBC about her father’s relaxed attitude outside the court:
“He actually lets me eat what I want, which is pretty cool that he’s not too strict outside the court. The only thing he’s strict about is my schooling, like ever parent is, other than that he just says balance your life, you have time to relax and hang out but when it’s time to work, you work. That’s all he wants for me, and to be independent.”